Yale dance leads new chapter in Cunningham legacy

Yale Dance Theater will receive the rights to the work of the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose company is pictured here.
Yale Dance Theater will receive the rights to the work of the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose company is pictured here. Photo by Sveeva Vigevno/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.


The works of a legendary choreographer will begin a new phase of their legacy at Yale this spring.

Yale Dance Theater, an initiative in which students learn influential choreography from professional dancers, will be the first recipient of the rights to the work of the late American choreographer Merce Cunningham after the company he founded officially disbands in January 2012. Performing Cunningham’s works at such a key moment in his company’s history renders Yale and its dance scene a leader in the dance world, said Yale Dance Theater director Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11.

A pioneer in 20th-century dance and avant-garde performance, Cunningham planned for his legacy before his death in 2009, aiming to preserve his choreographic repertory of over 200 works. The first of its kind in the dance world, the plan detailed that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company would lead a final, two-year international tour after his death, after which the Company would dissolve. According to the plan, the Merce Cunningham Trust would then serve as the guardian of his works, granting universities and professional dance companies licenses to his choreography.

The tour is now winding to a close and will culminate in a New Year’s Eve performance at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. As for the future preservation of his choreography, Yale will provide a model for bringing a critical, research-based approach to reconstructing Cunningham’s works, said Patricia Lent, director of repertory licensing at the Cunningham Trust.

Coates, a professor of theater studies, said that receiving Cunningham’s work two weeks after the company folds in January is a “monumental occurrence.”

“It means we have our finger on the pulse of the moment and what’s important in the dance world and at American culture at large,” she said.

Obtaining the rights to Cunningham’s work comes as something of a break for dance at Yale, which Sterling professor of Theater Joseph Roach called “the art at Yale that’s been held back the most” in an interview with the News in early November.

While Harvard’s dance program was established in 1973 and Wesleyan’s in 1967, Yale only began to offer courses in the discipline in the early 1980s. Tenured positions in dance exist at Princeton and Wesleyan, which has its own curricular dance department, and Roach said Harvard has more facilities and faculty appointments.

Even today, dance at Yale exists as part of the theater studies program but is not part of the regular budget of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Roach said. Funding for dance is not a permanent fixture, he said, as it is dependent primarily on grant money.

Yale Dance Theater has run both this and last year’s programs with funding from the Arts Discretionary Fund, which awards money to arts projects that do not have a regular source of funds, Associate Dean for the Arts Susan Cahan said. But despite lacking permanency, the program has set a precedent for high intellectual value in its liberal arts setting: Cahan said Yale Dance Theater aims to “introduce a more intellectual and rigorous, culturally grounded approach” to dance at Yale.

The program kicked off last January as the first extracurricular initiative to allow dancers to learn existing choreography from professional directors in a rigorous rehearsal environment. Cahan said that she approached Coates about the idea because Yale’s dance scene lacked opportunities for students to dance existing choreography, which Coates described as essential for any dancer’s development.

“Nothing can replace doing choreography as a way of learning about a choreographer’s vision,” Coates said. “And performing excellent choreography is the road to improving as a dancer.”

Amymarie Bartholomew ’13, a member of student-run dance company Groove who participated in last year’s Yale Dance Theater project, added that receiving landmark choreography and working with professional coaches provides an experience that no other dance group on campus can provide.

In its in inaugural year, Yale Dance Theater restaged Twyla Tharp’s 1971 piece “Eight Jelly Rolls,” bringing to campus two past members of Tharp’s company, Jennifer Way Rawe and Kate Glasner, as rehearsal directors. The project focused on researching the process and challenges of dance reconstruction, Coates said. With the additional coaching of Sara Rudner and Rose Marie Wright, two members of the original “Eight Jelly Rolls” performance, the students involved a multi-generational perspective on the evolution of Tharp’s choreography.

Lent said that working with Yale Dance Theater on Cunningham choreography appealed to her because this emphasis on generational knowledge and the process of reconstruction is unusual for a collegiate group. Most other university groups, she said, are simply looking for a dance to perform at a spring concert.

“The next time a university calls me and is interested in [Cunningham’s] work, I have a new model I can propose,” Lent added.

The Yale Dance Theater will stage an excerpt from the Cunningham work “Roaratorio,” which premiered in 1983, and will be accompanied by discussion of the work from the dancers and rehearsal directors at its April showing. The four directors each danced in a different iteration of the Cunningham company: Meg Harper in late 1960s and ’70s, Nick Greenberg in the early ’80s, Patricia Lent herself mid ’80s to early ’90s and current member Jennifer Goggans.

In addition to staging “Roaratorio,” the group will construct what Cunningham dubbed a “MinEvent.” Its longer version, an “Event” is a performance formed by recombining snippets of existing choreography from the company’s repertory. The Yale Dance Theater MinEvent will comprise choreographic excerpts representing different periods in the Cunningham company.

Coates said she hopes bring students at the Yale School of Music on board to create an original composition to accompany the MinEvent, as it is not bound to any musical score. Rather, Lent said, the choreography and the music work in an independent but simultaneous manner.

While the choreography will no longer be presented by a resident company, projects like Yale Dance Theater will carry on Cunningham’s work through research and performance.

“You can think of it as a new beginning,” Lent said.

The audition for Yale Dance Theater is Friday, Dec. 2 at Broadway Rehearsal Loft. The culminating performance will take place at the Ezra Stiles Crescent Theater in late April.

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